Next Goal Wins (2014)

Next Goal WinsAs the 2014 FIFA World Cup approaches, the national football team for American Samoa is in dire straits. They’ve never qualified for the competition before, and out of desperation spokesperson Larry Mana’oa contacts FIFA itself to ask for help. Assistance arrives in the form of Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-born footballer who has spend most of his professional life managing teams in the US. He is greeted by a team of amateurs, too unfit to last a full game and too unskilled to work as an effective team. He seeks outside help, tracking down emigrants Ramin and Rawley to supplement a team which includes keeper Nicky (now living in Seattle), defender Jaiyah (who is studying performing arts at the University of Hawaii) and substitute Rambo (who, darn it, is just trying his best). He then sets out to rebuild the team almost from the ground up.

Football has had something of a chequered history on the big screen; the sport is occasionally portrayed in a positive light but is for the most part presented as a force of evil. For every Bend It Like Beckham or Air Bud: World Pup there are a multitude of hooligan movies, from Green Street to The Football Factory, each exploring (often in excessive detail) the darker side of football. It’s refreshing, then, to see a film that not only eschews hooliganism but which even downplays the competitive nature of organised sport. A good documentary should take a relatively esoteric subject and make it not only accessible to all but interesting too. Next Goal Wins is a very good documentary; whether you care for football or not, it taps into a love and passion for community and country that doesn’t just transcend football but sport as well.

The film, directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, focuses on American Samoa, widely considered to be the worst football team in the world. When production began, not only had the team never won an official event in their seventeen-year history, but they hadn’t even scored a goal. What’s more, in 2001 the team broke international records by losing to Australia 30-0. But that’s not the only remarkable thing about American Samoa: goalkeeper Nicky Salapu is still haunted by his poor performance against Australia, but continues to play for the team at every opportunity; most of the players are in full-time employment or study, and therefore must train in their free time; while centre back Jaiyah “Johnny” Saelua — who identifies as a member of American Samoa’s third gender — is the first ever transgender person to play in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier. They also live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Brett and Jamison begin in the weeks prior to Thomas Rongen’s hiring, when Larry Mana’oa and coach Iofi “Ace” Lalogafuafua are reviewing their options (their first hire is a sports psychologist who thinks Mount Everest is in North America). There is a purity in seeing the players compete not for money or fame but love of the sport, and as they continue to lose games it’s hard not to be charmed by their spirit and perseverance. This is a team — this is a nation — that has endured a lot more than failure in football, as their country has been blighted by unemployment, and their lives savaged by the 2009 tsunami. When big-time manager Rogen shows up with his premier league work ethic and own tragic backstory there is the fear that he might take over the film as well as the team, corrupting what was so endearing about the players in the first place, but instead the opposite occurs and he too is won over by it. He may teach them to slide tackle (in one of the film’s most inspiring scenes) but they teach him even more — about the island, their culture and about himself, too.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Rogen leaves the team in a much better position than he finds it (as he says in Next Goal Wins, they are now part of sporting history), but it’s not just in the FIFA rankings that the team enjoys progress. As both manager and and players grow as a team and as individuals it is easy to get swept up in the celebration. All too often sportsmen are reduced to mere statistics, and in treating them as characters with unique personalities the directors have opened the game up to everyone with an interest in human beings. It’ll make you laugh and cry, but perhaps unusually for cinema it will also make you want to stand up and cheer.

4-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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